|Valdez Creek post office in the 1990s|
The small log cabin shown in the drawing, built by miner Leburn Wickersham in the early 1900s, is one of the last buildings at the old mining settlement of Denali, located on Valdez Creek about 60 miles east of Cantwell off the Denali Highway. It served as Denali’s post office until 1942.
Valdez Creek is a tributary of the Susitna River and tumbles down out of the Clearwater Mountains. At the end of the 19th century, this region was one of the few Alaskan areas still unexplored by Westerners, but in 1897 a group of prospectors from Cook Inlet finally reached the Susitna’s headwaters.
Working their their way upriver, they panned numerous creeks-- finding little gold until reaching present day Valdez Creek. By then their eyes were so swollen from mosquito bites that they named the swiftly flowing stream “Swollen Creek.” Gold appeared to be relatively abundant but they lacked equipment for serious development, and low supplies forced them to return to Cook Inlet. Word of their discovery spread but it wasn’t until 1903 that their creek was “re-discovered.”
In February of 1903 a party of men led by prospector Peter Monahan (veteran of both the Klondike and Nome gold rushes) left Valdez, mushing north over the Valdez Glacier Trail to prospect in Copper River country. They spent six months working along the eastern edge of the Talkeetna Mountains and eventually shifted westward into the Susitna River drainage.
In August Monahan’s party struck paydirt on the same creek the 1897 prospectors had discovered. They staked and worked claims until September, returning to Valdez with several hundred ounces of gold. Monahan re-named the stream, “Valdez Creek,” in honor of his homebase.
When Monahan and partners returned the next year, hundreds of eager gold seekers trailed them. Soon the majority of creeks in the area were staked, and a haphazard little settlement sprang up. Valdez Creek is in a remote and mountainous area, and most of the miners weren’t interested in toughing out the long harsh winters. Few permanent structures were erected, and those were scattered across the hills.
At first the settlement was called “Galina,” the English equivalent of an Ahtna Indian word meaning “a place where game abounds.” Athna Indians had lived in the area for generations and Valdez Creek was one of their main hunting areas--the site of a seasonal hunting village.
The settlement was later called McKinley and eventually Denali. By the summer of 1908 there were 180 residents, but only about 20 lived there year-round. Actually, two settlements developed: the white community on the west bank of Valdez Creek, and an Ahtna village about a mile east. Natives provided fish and game for the miners and even worked in the mines.
Denali’s heyday (at least in terms of population) only lasted a few years. The really rich paystreaks were hundreds of feet underground and most miners moved on after a few years. Large companies later developed those deep deposits, but most of the settlement’s old buildings were demolished in the process.